Born in Edo in 1835, his parents were proprietors of a bathhouse and a teahouse. He was interested in painting and sketching, and when he was 13, Kunichika began studying under the great woodblock master Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III).
Kunichika is best known for his colorful woodblocks of Kabuki actors with bold facial expressions, but he also created prints of beautiful women, historical scenes, and landscapes. Kunichika is considered one of the last masters of the traditional style of ukiyo-e print. He held on to the more traditional styles and subjects of his predecessors, while other Meiji era artists were developing new styles and subject matter. But he did incorporate modern Western materials and techniques, like the aniline dyes that produce vivid reds and purples, and the use of vanishing point perspective.